It's hard to be thankful when you're angry

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

It's hard to be thankful when you're angry


            So many people seem to be angry these days.  See if what Susan Tolchin says in her book, The Angry American, How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation, rings true to you.

  • Anger has become the political watchword. . .The absence of civility, the decline of intelligent dialogue, and the rising decibels of hate in political discourse. (p. 3)
  • Anger comes from frustration, or more specifically, from the growing realization that we are unable to control our immediate environment. (p. 44)
  • The need for enemies has long occupied students of international politics. . .Blame always worked well as a staple of foreign policy, where the identification of an enemy elevates the self to a position of moral superiority. (p. 30)
  • A major source of personal anger stems from deprivation, or a sense of what one has in terms of what one thinks others have. (p. 26)
  • Anger spawned by deprivation has been called a "relative" emotion because it is so highly dependent on culture.  An islander on Bali may feel hardly any sense of deprivation, for example, whereas a suburbanite from Winnetka, Illinois, can work up quite a froth over half a percentage point increase in his local real estate tax.  (p. 27)


What's amazing, almost spooky is that Tolchin wrote that in 1999!


So, if you're mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore, what are you going to do about tomorrow, about a day to give thanks?  It's hard to be thankful when you're angry.


Every day at St. Bernardine and every Sunday at St. John, the pastor of the congregation gets up in front of the people and says something that sounds out of place in our world today.  He says something like, "In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and gave thanks."


Gave thanks for what?  One of his "friends" betrayed him, all the others abandoned him and that was just the beginning of a very rough three days.


If it's true that much of the current anger in our society is created by comparing what we don't have to what others have, 99% of us are doomed to chronic anger or depression.  Check this out.  Brenton Saunders the CEO of Actavis, a health care company, makes $36.6 million A YEAR while the cost of your medications keeps going up!  The next three top money making CEOs in health care make $27.1, $26.4, $25 million respectively.


How's your blood pressure doing?  You're probably getting red in the face if you compare what they make to the fact that your purchasing power has been stagnant for, what, six years now.


So, how did Jesus do it?  How was he able to give thanks in the middle of a situation in which I would be catatonic?


Maybe one way to transform anger into gratitude is to stop comparing our lot to that of others.  Do we have enough?  If I compare annual income to that of Mr. Saunders, I would complain, "It's not fair.  Life isn't fair."  If I'd say that to Jesus, he might respond, "Have you just now figured that out?"


And maybe as Jesus is saying that, a choir of angels would be in the background singing, "I beg your pardon.  I never promised you a rose garden.  Along with the sunshine, there's gotta be a little rain sometimes."


Anger is a good emotion.  The challenge, as is often the case in life, is to manage anger well lest it get control of us.  Paul said something like that in his Letter to the Ephesians.  "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." (4:26)


I've asked all of my black friends, "Are you angry?"  And to a man they respond, "Of course I'm angry.  But I channel that anger.  I use it as fuel to overcome the obstacles society has put in my way.  When I'm with people who give me respect, I'm grateful.  Just because you feel anger, doesn't mean you have the right to take it out on everyone you meet."


Please notice that my black friends don't control their anger.  They feel it, but they also feel affection and grace. 


Another thing.  Most of my black friends are religious.  They don't buy into what David Brooks refers to as the culture of the Big Me, "a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe."


What Brooks contends is an antidote to the self-centered, narcissistic, blaming culture of the Big Me—which we've had so much of in the latest election campaign—is a culture of humility.  "In the valley of humility they [people with character] learned to quiet the self.  Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly.  Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.  When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in." (The Road to Character, p. 13)


If we take that advice seriously, we should spend part of this evening quietly separating out the suffering others impose on us and the suffering which we inflict on ourselves by worshiping gods which never come through on what they promise and "putting lower loves above higher ones."


Perhaps then we will see life more clearly, that it is both unfair and full of grace.  Maybe then we will be in a place where we can authentically feel gratitude tomorrow.



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